On the Clerisy and Occupy Wall Street

I came across possibly the best analysis I’ve seen yet of the phenomena that is Occupy Wall Street, from self-confessed Marxist Kenneth Anderson over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Anderson, referencing Christopher Lasch’s analysis of the protestors as part of a “New Class” of managerial workers, has this to say about the protestors, what has driven them into the parks, and what their demands probably really are:

The problem the New Class faces at this point is the psychological and social self-perceptions of a status group that is alienated (as we marxists say) from traditional labor by its semi-privileged upbringing — and by the fact that it is actually, two distinct strands, a privileged one and a semi-privileged one. It is, for the moment, insistent not just on white-collar work as its birthright and unable to conceive of much else. It does not celebrate the dignity of labor; it conceived of itself as existing to regulate labor. So it has purified itself to the point that not just any white-collar work will do. It has to be, as Michelle Obama instructed people in what now has to be seen as another era, virtuous non-profit or government work [italics mine – CHF]. Those attitudes are changing, but only slowly; the university pipelines are still full of people who cannot imagine themselves in any other kind of work, unless it means working for Apple or Google. 

The New Class has always operated across the lines of public and private, however, the government-university-finance and technology capital sectors. It is not a theory of the government class versus the business class — as 1990s neoconservatives sometimes mistakenly imagined. As Lasch pointed out, it is the class that bridges and moves effortlessly between the two. As a theory of late capitalism (once imported from being an analysis of communist nomenkaltura) it offers itself as a theory of technocratic expertise first – but, if that spectacularly fails as it did in 2008, it falls back on a much more rudimentary claim of monopoly access to the levers of the economy. Which is to say, the right to bridge the private-public line, and rent out its access.

Anderson goes on to say that the difference between these lower elites and the bankers of the upper elite is that the OWS protestors no longer have any social or economic position they can effective leverage in a global market. There is no demand for the skills they have, no desire to employ them at what they want to do, and thus they have absolutely no comparative advantage. And thus no rents to collect. As long as finance continued to produce the kinds of non-overtly subsidized profits that could continue to fund both the non-profit virtue industry as well as fund (and and other the end, pay for) student loans, then more then enough of the young and virtuous could be employed. But not anymore. As Anderson notes:

The asset bubble pops, but the upper tier New Class, having insulated itself and, as with subprime, having taken its cut upfront and passed the risk along, is still doing pretty well. It’s not populism versus the bankers so much as internecine warfare between two tiers of elites.

In effect, a generation of young people has educated itself very specifically, and now with the economy drying up, there is no demand for what they supply.

I think this is a fascinating analysis, and generally correct. It corresponds with some things that I have seen, embedded deeply in a seminary of a socially, politically and sometimes theologically liberal confession. Because what Anderson is describing is the clerisy, that class of educated professionals who have administered industrial democracy since its invention in the latter half of the 19th century. Economist Deirdre McClosky in her book on bourgeois virtues noted that the clerisy were deeply bourgeois in the values and social expectations but were also those group of bourgeois who were completely alienated from the actual production of wealth. They have no idea where money comes from, how value is added, how wealth is produced. Indeed, the clerisy tend to take the means of production, and the production of wealth, as a given.

The clerisy in the West is both secular and religious. But liberal protestant churches (such as the one I am in) are run by the clerisy, by people who effectively have no real understanding of, or much appreciation for, the creation of wealth. The general view of money and wealth for the liberal protestant  seems to be:

  • Money is icky and bad …
  • … But no one should ever have to struggle for money.
Now, there is a reality of any sophisticated, civilized society — that there will be enough surplus economic production to support a class of people who produce nothing of value, or something of unquantifiable value, and in doing these things, contribute to the well-being of the society. Clergy, government clerks, artists, poets, scholars, all of these people are subsidized to one extent or another because they do not “produce” or aid significantly in the production of goods and services. What the clerisy Anderson describes, people yearning to do “virtuous non-profit or government work,” forget is how dependent their work is on the wealth produced and either shared or extracted from others. Whatever the sins of the financiers — and they are legion — you cannot create a large class of people who exist solely on the backs of others. And across the Western world, from California to Greece, governments have found themselves unable to keep the promises made to government workers because they end up being far too costly. Every dollar paid to public employee or retiree has to come from somewhere. 
One of the great puzzles that mass society/social democracy/industrial capitalism has never been able to fully solve has been the puzzle of what to do with the fact that thanks to capital, fewer and fewer people can produce more and more wealth. What becomes of those who are superfluous? If John Taylor Gatto is right, a little more than a century ago, capital tried to permanently organize the world so that there was a place for everyone, and that everyone would find their place. But that arrangement did not hold for very long. Creating do-nothing managerial work, making some the permanent keepers and managers of others — especially earnest, angst- and guild-ridden young people who desire to do good and think the best way, or the only way, to do so is in the context of the therapeutic state — was one solution. But it may be in the process of falling completely apart as well. 
Which gets me to my last point in this missive. Anderson is right that the clerisy does not dignify labor. Indeed, the clerisy — particularly that of the liberal church — denigrates labor. The only work it truly values is work done on computers in cubicles. The only product it truly understands is paper. It does not know what to do with or how to value any other kind of labor. In this, I am with John Robb, that the future belongs not to those who lobby the state, but those who build resilient communities. The protestors are right to bring the sins of finance to the attention of whoever will listen — to borrow a slogan from ACT Up, I’d like to see someone wave a sign that said “Investment banking = death” — in hopes that someone’s conscience will be pricked enough to prompt action. Just don’t count on it.
It is, however, a fool’s errand to expect or demand that not-for-profit virtue work be made available again. It is also extremely arrogant, selfish and self-centered.
The only way for individuals and communities to survive in the coming age is for people to work together, and for individuals to have a real skill and to be willing to do hard work. By real skill, I mean making something you can sell, or fixing something so it can work again. And by hard work, I mean hard work — not in office buildings, not in business casual, not demanding professional credentials, and not producing paper. 

One thought on “On the Clerisy and Occupy Wall Street

  1. Charles,Great comments from you, as always. (I come to expect wisdom when I read this page, and have not yet been disappointed.)Another thing to keep in mind is that our labor market is heavily stratified, and higher education has made it worse through its process of credentialing everything. The skills and knowledge needed for a lot of jobs can be obtained with MUCH less formal training and more on-the-job training than one needs from a high-priced college education. (I’m speaking as a college professor, which might be a bit hypocritical, but there it is.)Labor unions took over the on-the-job training decades ago, at least for blue-collar jobs, and we see how that turned out. The Clerisy (I like that term) declared that one must have a college education to do things that really don’t require four years of partying and sex — er, studying and listening to lectures — to learn.So, today we have a labor market where the stratification is accepted as being necessary to “professionalize” the workforce, another dream of the Progressives of a century ago. Furthermore, from the interviews of OWS people I have heard, these college graduates are utterly inarticulate and incapable of applying even simple logic.

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